Gunnedah’s Lewis Donaldson made an emotive trip to Europe earlier this year to retrace the steps of his family’s proud military heritage.

While his Year 12 schoolmates were forward planning the next chapter in their young lives, Lewis was in western Europe looking back at his family’s involvement in World War I.

He spent time on the battlefields of France and Belgium to learn more about his great-great uncle, Edwin Henry Fryer.

Edwin, a grocer from Bellingen, was aged just 34 when he died from wounds received near Messines in Belgium on January 18, 1918.

A fellow soldier wrote of Edwin’s injuries: “He had a leg shot off, and the other broken in three places, and was also hit about the body. He was conscious when I saw him. He was speaking about his wife and child [Janet, and five-year-old Edwin]. What would happen to them etc.”

Edwin died that night and is buried at Kandahar Farm Cemetery, Ypres, Flanders in Belgium.

Back home in Gunnedah, Lewis said it was a touching moment to visit the grave of his great-great uncle.

Lewis Donaldson’s great great uncle who fought in WWI, Edwin Henry Fryer.

“Being able to retrace his steps, seeing where he fought, where he would have been wounded and where he is buried … was very special,” he said.

Lewis also spent time visiting the Normandy beaches, Dunkirk and Calais on the French coast, Villers-Bretonneux, Menin Gate in Ypres, Polygon Wood, Hill 60, the fields and trenches where the Christmas truce of 1914 occurred, Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial, Tyne Cot and other places of significance.

He studied the world war conflicts at school and had seen the Anzac Day services on television but nothing prepared him for the moment standing on land near where his long-lost relative had died.

“Being there in person at the cemeteries and the graves, it hit home that it really happened – it’s proof of it all,” he said.

“It was an incredibly different feeling and emotion when you’re there in person.”

Lewis, whose family has lived in the Gunnedah area since the 1860s, said visiting the foreign grave of Edwin had become a “family tradition” for the Donaldson family as his nan, Gwen Donaldson, had also visited before.

“It’s part of the family, I feel it’s a responsibility to know what he did for Australia,” Lewis said.

He thought the battlefield pilgrimage was something that families of all service men and women should consider.

“I think every Australian should do it if they can – go over and visit their relatives who fought there,” he said.

“Even if [their family didn’t serve], it’s a great experience to see what happened, the scale of war, the tens of thousands of troops that are buried there, so hopefully it can never happen again. Especially in a time like today where everything is increasingly unsteady, now is the time more than ever to remember what humans are capable of.”

Lewis was recently named the 2024 Gunnedah Young Citizen of the Year at the Australia Day awards. After finishing Year 12 at St Mary’s College last year, he is now studying a Bachelor of Communication at Charles Sturt University in Bathurst.

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